From, of all sources, The DaVinci Code (which, yes, I was rereading just now, what of it?), one of the characters’ statements reminded of this awful-seeming truth: people are more driven by their fears than by their desires. I can’t find the exact citation now, but I was struck when I read it by one of those oh-crap-he’s-talking-to-me feelings. But, I don’t know, is it really true? What if your driving fear is that you won’t get what you desire? Is that good? Doesn’t that potentially mean you’ll work harder toward what you desire? Maybe. Unless the fear is hobbling you from doing anything toward what you desire. I don’t think for me that it’s fear of failure that haunts me, it’s other, more conventional fears — poverty, loneliness. Actually, I think my biggest fear is the fear of being uncomfortable. Is there a word for that? Infortuniophobia? Rilke wrote that we must rejoice in what strikes us with terror, that there is a “unity of dread and bliss, these two faces of the same divinity….” I’ve never quite grasped his connection between beauty and terror, fear and the sublime. All those angels who haunt him. Maybe it’s a kind of duende he’s referencing — the struggle/dance with death in the midst of life. I sort of get that, having long had a taste for gallows humor and a love of, for example, Edward Gorey’s darkly amusing view of the world. So I guess the lesson is to not just let any random fear drive you — let a good dark terror get a sniff of you. Then run like hell.
I was thinking about the Lucien Freud exhibit I saw several years ago. I almost skipped it in favor of the permanent exhibit but veered in at the last minute. Something about his determination, his commitment to depicting flesh as a pocked and lurid manifestation of emotion, the torturedness of his portraits and self-portraits, his funny side trips into his garden with its riot of lines, I found touching and inspiring. How can I push words to move beyond themselves without falling into incomprehensibility? What brutal honesty can be done with words beautifully? How can I use words such that I am moved beyond words into the wordless, into the visceral? This makes me think of how words themselves have a kind of visceral dimension — there are squishy words, hard words, rapid ones and slow, heavy and light. They exist in and of themselves, but then take on another dimension when set next to other words. It’s magic, really, and mysterious, like light and shadow, and seemingly impossible to control. Lucien Freud is quoted as saying about what he was up to with his art, “With me, it’s what Yeats called the fascination with what’s difficult. I’m only trying to do what I can’t do.”
I was reading a manuscript of someone else’s poems recently, and they were really good poems. Very competent, lovely poems of domesticity and parenthood. But, I thought to myself, some element is missing. Is the problem that I’m just not that interested in poems of domesticity and parenthood? I didn’t think that was it. I decided finally that what I was missing was a kind of reaching. This very able poet was not reaching beyond her grasp. She knew the world of her poems too well. If I call what I wanted from this manuscript more risk-taking, what do I mean by that? It’s a sense, I think, of a mind in motion rather than a mind at rest; questions asked and pondered rather than answered. What does it mean for any of us to take risks in our work? How do I write a poem that feels risky to me, that feels like I’m peering over the edge of something, and something that makes the reader tremble there too? Is risk about subject area, form, language, meaning?
So little subject matter is risky these days – we’ve encountered poems by now about just about every potentially taboo subject. So what is risk?
A friend says, “I demand emotional risk. Not necessarily confessional, but someone willing to open a vein, or why are we there anyway? … I just want to feel inspired by the guts and honesty and curiosity of the speaker, real or implied, to get out there and do the same. It’s something I have to say to myself over and over when I’m trying to write a poem, ‘Who are you shitting? Get real for a minute here. What’s the point? No, seriously, the real point, under all this tapdancing…Be honest!’”
I think I agree about “emotional risk,” but I’m just not always sure what that means — both in what I read and in what I write. And I actually don’t always need “emotional” risk, but SOME kind of reaching, whether emotional, craftish, wordish, conceptual. Now, how to translate this for my own self and my own poems is the trick.